Escaping the No Man’s Land of Defense Reform


Defense reform — frequently relegated to a no man’s land somewhere between wonkish dreams and third-rail issues — has reappeared as the issue du jour. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s newest set of reform proposals rolled out on April 5 may be a tall order, particularly in the last year of an administration. Armed Services Committee Chairmen Sen. John McCain and Rep. Mac Thornberry are pursuing parallel measures, though their form and timeline remain unclear. There is bipartisan agreement that many of DOD’s processes, organizational charts, and incentives are outdated, and that billions of taxpayer dollars are wasted annually as a result. But there are several visions of defense reform that are in competition.

The defense reform agenda has suffered from competing visions and ever-increasing scope. From Base Closure and Realignment Commission (BRAC) to military compensation to Goldwater-Nichols, “defense reform” has become a catch-all for all that is wrong with the department, making the agenda hard to swallow. But more than that, defense reform too often connotes “efficiencies,” a green eyeshade lens that distances it from the national security mission and imparts anxieties in DOD staff. As a result, defense reform finds many advocates in budget season but few serious implementers. Recent senior leaders have not been able to commit the time and political capital necessary to achieve sustained reform.

Despite all these limitations, the next secretary of defense should embrace defense reform and fully integrate it into his or her overall agenda. Fundamentally, defense reform is not just about cutting costs, but rather creating the opportunity and flexibility to shape and strengthen the organization, personnel, and process of the department. Without elevating it early, all other priority efforts will suffer. The next secretary of defense ought to keep three key imperatives in mind when he or she inherits a still-evolving defense reform agenda.

First, the next secretary of defense needs to start any reform agenda with an understanding of what problems they are trying to fix. A fundamental flaw of past efforts, and perhaps even current efforts as well, is the tendency to propose “solutions in search of a problem” — using a perceived need for change as a means to impose alternative systems and frameworks that are disconnected from a clear problem statement. It is certainly possible and even likely that there are elements of the department that are too large, too layered, too expensive, too slow and unwieldy, or too disconnected to appropriately meet the department’s core mission. Dozens of recent reports and testimonies have offered concerning statistics to that effect. But such judgments and requisite calls for across-the-board cuts are often made by instinct, and without a clear diagnosis of how these metrics are hindering DOD’s effectiveness.

Based on the problem statement, effective defense reform should focus on where DOD needs to place more emphasis, remove barriers, and eliminate redundancies, or what it needs to stop doing, and shift its resources and personnel accordingly. Thirty years ago, the key driver of the Goldwater-Nichols legislation was not cost savings or management delayering — which are tools, not solutions. It was all about improving the department’s ability to fight and win the nation’s wars.

Therefore, the next secretary, building on the work that the current team has done, should first revisit the assessments of reform challenges and then potential solutions. In several instances, known problems and potential solutions associated with defense reform are well defined and action can be taken immediately. However, others require further scrutiny, particularly to make the case for politically sensitive actions. The sooner a new secretary can identify pressing challenges within the department, the sooner the new secretary can both get ahead of issues and set new guidance and expectations.

Second, the next secretary of defense also needs to seek appropriate flexibility to accomplish reform early. Regardless of the rationale, the secretary will need all the rights tools to implement any meaningful defense reform. Prior secretaries have grown frustrated with their personal accountability for an organization they cannot easily shape, incentivize, or re-orient. Multiple initiatives have been launched at DOD to achieve cost savings and improve organizational effectiveness by managing human capital, streamlining bureaucracy, reducing institutional redundancy, and eliminating surplus infrastructure. Nearly all of these have been hampered by a complex constellation of authorities, legislative hurdles, bureaucratic inertia, and hard politics that constrain what a secretary can actually do to implement change. Congress has the opportunity to significantly enhance the next secretary’s ability to enact permanent reforms and generate savings by moving forward in, at minimum, the following two areas:

Personnel Reform Tools: The secretary should seek utmost flexibility to recruit, reward, reassign, and size his civilian workforce. This must start with gaining a commitment from Congress to a reasonable confirmation hearing timeframe for all DOD nominees. In order for the department to operate effectively, senior leadership positions have to be filled to ensure clear direction, leadership, and accountability. This effort might also include initiatives to manage the size and shape of the workforce, to include reforming the Voluntary Separation Incentive Pay program such that is both more attractive and a more flexible and targeted tool for managers. Or, as in the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act, it could include modification to the reduction in force process, making it less of a blunt instrument and more tailored to the performance and functional needs of the department. But equally importantly, the secretary should partner with Congress to avoid hiring freezes at all costs, maintaining the ability to bring new talent into the department, and also to preserve raises and incentive pays, strengthening the ability to award and retain key personnel. Initiatives such as the new performance management system are promising, but will require commitment from both the secretary and Congress for effective implementation. Finally, the secretary should work with Congress to continue to engage new sources of human capital to meet the growing demand for diverse skill sets across both the military and civilian personnel, remaining cognizant that the necessary incentives may not be limited to financial enticements. Such tools are necessary as a package; in their absence, initiatives such as the recent requirement to limit headquarters staffs are both difficult and inherently astrategic.

Excess Infrastructure: Congress should offer BRAC authority to the next secretary early in the administration, addressing a known cost driver and eliminating a political millstone. Excess infrastructure is estimated to cost the department upwards of $2 billion a year — a known waste that has been allowed to continue due to understandable political sensitivities. The waiting game is likewise challenging to the affected local communities, limiting their ability to plan for the future. Lessons can be learned from past BRAC processes to strengthen transparency, prioritize cost saving, enhance community support, build in environmental cleanup costs to appropriate estimates, and more clearly define military requirements in line with current challenges.

Finally, the next Secretary of Defense must rally the building behind reform. Defense reform is a dirty term in some sectors of the department, and produces understandable anxieties and even resistance among some of the staff. While the connotation surrounding “reform” tends to be framed in terms of cost savings and staff cuts, maintaining the ability to preserve and enhance value is as important as having the authority to eliminate waste. The secretary will likely need to streamline and increase cost-effectiveness across the defense enterprise, but must balance this effort with recruiting and strengthening talent and innovation in the DOD workforce and workflow. Accurately diagnosing the reform “problem statement” and communicating these dual imperatives are critical to gaining the buy-in of civilian and military staff.

Ultimately, defense reform is about the Pentagon’s core mission: to generate military forces that can fight and win America’s wars. Secretary Carter and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Joseph Dunford deserve much credit for framing their reform efforts in this way, and hopefully Congress will as well as it prepares to roll out their efforts in the coming weeks. But there should be no doubt that pursuing reform for reform’s sake, or to achieve some marginal cost savings, or to make a few organizational wire diagrams appear more rational, isn’t a reasonable basis for defense reform. In our view, the goal of defense reform is to help DOD get better at its core warfighting mission. If that remains the analytic point of departure, rallying everyone in the defense community behind these various reform efforts will increase the chances of success.


Shawn Brimley is the Executive Vice President and Director of Studies at the Center for a New American Security. Mr. Brimley served in the Pentagon as Special Advisor to the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy and at the White House as Director for Strategic Planning on the National Security Council staff.

Loren DeJonge Schulman is the Deputy Director of Studies and Leon E. Panetta Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security. Ms. Schulman left the White House in 2014 after serving as Senior Advisor to National Security Advisor Susan Rice. She has also worked as Chief of Staff to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, Director for Defense Policy and Strategy on the National Security Council Staff, and as a special assistant to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.

Katherine Kidder is the Bacevich Fellow at the Center for a New American Security with the Military, Veterans, and Society Program.